Saturday, September 22, 2007

Dixon's Tomahawk

I bought a tomahawk at Dixon's Muzzleloading Shop in Kempton, PA about 10 years ago. For the past few years I've used it as a garden tool. The relatively thin blade chops through the wood on my property well.

The edge had gotten dinged up pretty badly from hitting pebbles. Today I went out and bought a couple of new files to resharpen it. The blade is fairly soft, so with the sharp new files it didn't take me long to get the edge repaired. I then taped a sheet of 150 grit sandpaper on top of a mousepad to my workbench, and polished it up. I wound up with a nice convex edge. The 'hawk will now slice newspaper.

While I was working on the 'hawk I decided to wrap the handle with paracord. I left a gap of exposed wood as a grasping surface, because I thought it might be too thick if I wrapped the whole thing. At the bottom I drilled a hole through the handle and made a wrist loop.

I took her out back and whacked a few things. Big improvement. Here are a couple of pictures.

I have an Ontario 12" machete and a Cold Steel Trail Hawk on order. It'll be interesting to see how they compare as choppers.

Edited to add:
It weighs 1 lb. 7 oz. Total length is 18-3/8", and the edge is 4".

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thoughts About Survival Knives

I have been reevaluating my choices for survival knives lately.

Previously, I've favored smaller blades. When I was in a Civil Air Patrol ground search and rescue unit I happily got by with first a 5" USAF Survival Knife, then later a Schrade Uncle Henry LB7 Bearpaw folding hunter.

However, during the course of some recent firestarting practice I came to appreciate the chopping power of my Becker BK7. It's size made splitting branches easy when used with a baton, plus with its size I was able to chop at branches to chip off wood shavings for fire starting.

If I was absolutely restricted to one knife and one knife only in a survival situation in most of North America, I'd choose the BK7 without second thought. With a 7" blade, it's a good compromise between a small knife and a big chopper. But since this is a preparedness site and we believe in thinking ahead, IMO it's better to include a minimum of two knives in an emergency kit in my environment (Pennsylvania). Specifically, a small to medium sized blade teamed with a larger knife or hatchet. These will complement my everyday carry Victorinox Pioneer Swiss Army Knife.

The problem with relying exclusively on a small blade is that you may need chopping power in an emergency. Something that can cut the limbs off trees to make shelter or obtain firewood, can split kindling for a fire, or cut the legs off a downed deer. You might be able to perform these tasks with a 4" knife but not as easily as with a larger blade. As an alternative to a large knife, one might carry a hatchet or tomahawk for these chopping duties.

Conversely, a large knife is awkward to work with when performing fine cutting tasks, e.g., whittling camp implements from sticks. And like it or not, large knives tend to alarm urbanites and suburbanites who you may need to deal with.

The smallest blade, the SAK in my case, handles fine cutting tasks, doing so much more conveniently than a larger knife. It's small enough to carry in pocket virtually everywhere yet large enough to handle most cutting tasks I run into on a daily basis in an urban environment. The Pioneer has a spear point knife blade, an awl/reamer, a can opener with small screwdriver on the tip, a bottle opener with a larger screwdriver tip and a wire stripping notch. Victorinox makes another variant of the Pioneer, the Farmer, which adds a saw blade that could be useful. One reason I'm partial to the Victorinox Pioneers is that the handle scales are made from aluminum, so the knives are very rugged.

An alternative to a SAK is a multitool of the Leatherman, Gerber Multiplier, or Victorinox Swisstool type. These add a variety of tools to the basic knife blade, including pliers. I prefer the Victorinox multitools as IMHO they are higher in quality than the Leathermans or Gerbers. Multitools are heavier than pocketknives, so they may or may not work for you.

The medium blade handles larger tasks like skinning game or making fuzz sticks for fire starting. This can be a short fixed blade such as a Mora or a robust folder, such as my aforementioned Bearpaw or a Buck 110. For safety's sake, a locking blade is best if you choose a folder, although I've never managed to hurt myself due to the lack of a blade lock in about 30 years of carrying folding knives.

A side note about folders: The ability to open a folding knife with one hand is important, in case you only have one usable hand due to the other hand being either occupied or injured. Folding hunters such as the LB7 have sufficient weight in the handle to allow the blades to be flicked open. You grasp the blade then flick the handle downwards. The downside to this is that it's not as safe as a knife designed to be opened with one hand, such as a Spyderco Endura.

If you prefer a fixed blade over a folder for your medium sized knife, then a Mora makes a great choice. Although inexpensive, they are good quality knives and take a keen edge without being too hard to sharpen.

For a large chopper I have on order an Ontario 12" machete with a knuckle guard. The foot-long blade should work better than the BK7's 7" blade to clear a campsite, split kindling when used with a baton, and would make a formidable defensive weapon should the need arise. If I lived further south I'd go for a full size 18" machete.

Given my druthers I prefer knives made from carbon steel, especially for large knives. Carbon steel knives tend to be (a) easier to sharpen than stainless, and (b) tend to be a bit more rugged. The Ontario is made from 1095 carbon steel, though my Bearpaw's blade is made from stainless. An exception is the stainless used by Victorinox for their Swiss Army Knives. It's on the soft side and doesn't take me long to put on a razor edge using an Arkansas stone. I touched up the edge the other day and it's freaking sharp!

An additional consideration is blade thickness. This isn't as much of a consideration in folders, but some fixed knives come with blades that are thick enough in relation to their width, that the grind angle is such that they're hard to sharpen. The USAF Survival Knife is a good example of a knife with a blade too thick for its width, unless it was hollow ground.

Knives are among the most important items in your survival kit. They should be selected with care to maximize their utility in your environment. Between the SAK, LB7, and machete, I should be able to handle anything that needs cutting in an emergency.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Personal Financial Management

Part of being prepared is keeping your financial house in order. I came across this article, which I feel is worth reading.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gerber Firecracker Flashlight

Last weekend while up at REI, I picked up a Gerber Firecracker flashlight. Made of machined aluminum, it has 1 white LED, uses 1 AA battery, and puts out 18 Lumens. If you twist the tailcap it'll operate in continuous mode, and can also be used as a momentary switch if you push it in.

According to Gerber the beam will reach 160 feet. It'll reach the back of my yard from inside my house, through a sliding glass door that needs to be cleaned. It's not as bright as my Surefire G2 but it's more useful as a utility light, as opposed to a tactical light like the Surefire.

The one thing which could be improved would be to make the lanyard hole larger. It's only a couple millimeters in diameter, so in order to attach a paracord lanyard I first put a small loop of mason's twine through the it, then ran the paracord through that. (I want to find a small split ring to replace the mason's twine.)

Overall I'm quite pleased with the light. It's taken up residence in my laptop bag, replacing an older, larger light.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fire Starting in the Dark and Wet

In my Sunday post I described how I did some backyard experimenting with fire starting. Since my goal was to see if a Ballistol-soaked cleaning patch would catch the sparks from a fire steel and act as tinder, the nice weather on Sunday was a bonus.

However, when you're out in the woods, whether by design or bad fortune, odds are that weather conditions won't always cooperate. Your fuel sources may be wet and it may be actually raining. Just as bad, it may be dark. (For some perverse reason, it seemed that every time my CAP squadron went on an FTX, we didn't pitch camp until it was dark and raining.)

So, tonight I went out back again for more practice. It rained last night and earlier today, so everything was wet. Before heading outside I gathered several items:

1. A Swiss surplus rain poncho, mainly for use as a mat to sit on. I also used it to collect wood shavings.
2. My Becker Combat/Utility 7 knife, along with matches and tinder in a small Altoids tin in the sheath pouch.
3. A Rayovac LED headlamp.
4. My Victorinox Pioneer Swiss Army Knife, to which is attached a County Comm Peanut Lighter. If I step out of the house, this combo is in my pocket.
5. 1L Nalgene bottle of water to douse the fire when I was finished.

I wanted to see if I could get a fire going using just a match and tinder gathered from my yard. I gathered some small dead branches from a tree in my yard. These felt pretty dry. I broken them up and set them aside.

I took a small branch which didn't seem soaked from my wood pile, peeled off the bark, and made a pile of shavings from the dry wood within.

Rather than placing my pile of shavings directly on damp ground, I first made a platform of dry sticks. Doing so keeps your tinder from getting damp.

The first hitch I ran into was that I could not get my strike anywhere matches to light, even using a dry rock as the striker. I don't have a striker from a match box in the fire starting kit in the Becker Sheath, something I must remedy.

I decided to light the match with the Peanut Lighter then try to light the pile of shavings. What I discovered was that whatever wood this was would ignite, flame, then cool down to a coal and then go out before getting any real flame going. Discouraging to say the least.

In exasperation, I took half of a petroleum jelly cotton ball out of the fire starting kit and placed it in the middle of the pile of shavings, then lit it with the Peanut Lighter. The cotton ball with PJ burned hot and long enough to ignite the wood shavings and sticks that I added. Shortly thereafter I had a small blaze going.

After dousing the fire and coming inside I took another match and tried to light it using the grout in my slate floor in my office. This has worked in the past, but tonight, no dice. I got one spark but the tip of the match wore away before igniting. I put the match in the flame of a lighter and it did ignite, so it may be that it's too humid for the strike anywhere matches to light without a matchbox striker or external help. Not something I'd want to discover in an emergency.

Lessons learned:

1. Lighting a fire when stuff is wet takes a lot of work.
2. Carry good tinder with you. Don't depend on being able to find natural tinder when you need it. Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly can be made at home, are cheap, and work wonderfully.
3. As a corrollary to #2, if you do find good tinder while roaming the woods, gather some for later use.
4. Even if your matches are strike anywheres, carry the striker from a matchbox with you.
5. Have at least one backup means of making fire. E.g., a lighter. I wholeheartedly recommend the Peanut Lighters from They are inexpensive, small, carry easily in a pocket, and don't leak. Mine has not been refilled in at least two weeks. I also like ferrocerrium rods which can be struck to generate a shower of hot sparks. They last a long time and work when wet.
6. A large knife will make it easier for you to make fire. It's much easier to make wood shavings with a good sized belt knife than with a pocket knife. You can also use a large knife to split open wet branches to get at the dry wood within.
7. Aside from keeping you dry, a poncho can be used to collect wood shavings you make and keep them off damp ground.
8. LED headlamps rock. It would have been a lot harder to work in the dark if I had to hold a flashlight in one hand.
9. Setting things on fire is fun.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Practiced some fire starting today

Fire making is a skill that you need to learn and then practice. Although I've started plenty of camp fires, every so often I like to try something a little different to see if it's something I can use. For example, my Marlin 336 has an Eagle Industries Stock Pack on the butt, inside of which I carry a small cleaning kit, a 35mm film canister filled with cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly for use as tinder, and a Swedish Fire Steel. The latter is a ferrocerium rod and steel striker, which can be used to throw a shower of sparks. Someone recently suggested that the Ballistol in my cleaning kit might work as a fire starter, something I wanted to try out.

Here's what I gathered in my backyard to do a little experimenting:

On the left are some large sticks to use as fuel. Then my Becker Combat/Utility 7 knife, tomahawk, Ziploc containing the cleaning kit, tinder and fire steel, then some small sticks for use as kindling. I wound up not needing the tomahawk. The Becker worked well to shave down a bunch of fuzz from the large sticks, and to split them so the inner dry wood was exposed.

Here's the pile of wood shavings ready to go. The white thing in the middle is a cleaning patch wet with Ballistol.

My hope was to use sparks from the fire steel to ignite the Ballistol-soaked patch, which in turn would ignite the shavings. No dice. It simply would not light. This demonstrates that while something might seem like a good idea in theory, it won't necessarily work in practice, and one should have a backup plan.

My backup plan is the fire starting kit kept in the pouch on the Becker's sheath. It's a small Altoids tin with some strike anywhere matches, and some PJ-soaked cotton balls. The wood shavings were thin and dry enough so that I didn't need to use a cotton ball. One match was all it took to get the shavings burning nicely. I then added sticks about as big around as a pencil, and once they were burning I added thicker wood. Here's my fire after it was burning for a little while:

As you can see, I filled the Spaghettios can with water to see how long it would take to boil. Only a few minutes, as it turns out.

While I was experimenting out back, my four and a half year old daughter Alexandra came out, so I was able to teach her about camp fires. We even put the fire out with water, then rebuilt it using one of the PJ-soaked cotton balls as tinder.

It was a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Deal on Wenger Swiss Gear Water Bottles

I came across a great deal today at BJ's Wholesale Club. They had a four-pack of Wenger Swiss Gear 32 oz (1L) Lexan bottles for $7.90 before tax. These are very similar to the Nalgene 32 oz. wide mouth bottles that normally go for about $10 each.

The Wenger bottles are about the same diameter as the Nalgenes. The Olicamp Space Saver cups which I got from Campmor fit over the end of a Nalgene will accept a Wenger bottle. However, the mouth on the Wenger is a little larger than the Nalgenes, so replacement caps or water filters designed to fit the latter won't work on the Wengers. For less than 25% the cost of a Nalgene, I can live with this.